Do English Speakers Have It Easier When It Comes to Transgender Pronoun Debates?

|The Volokh Conspiracy |

In English, at least, you can generally avoid taking a stand on a person's gender by using the person's name instead of a pronoun. It may sound awkward, and it's probably hard to do on the spur of the moment in speech, but it's possible, especially when you're writing and can edit things accordingly. And when you're talking to the person, "you" works regardless of sex.

But in Russian, you can't even do that: When you're talking about a person in the past tense, the verb is different for men and women. That's true in the third person, in the second, and in the first (though, thankfully, it's at least not true in the second person formal). So if I'm taking about Pat having worked, for a male Pat it would be "Pat rabotal," while for a female Pat it would be "Pat rabotala." If I'm talking to Pat using the informal second person, I'd say "ty rabotal" to male Pat and "ty rabotala" to female Pat.

Likewise, if I want to use adjectives to describe someone, the adjectives are also gender-marked. To say a male Pat is smart, I'd say "Pat umniy"; to say a female Pat is smart, I'd say "Pat umnaya." Can't dodge the question in Russian; you've got to commit to one gender or the other.

NEXT: Prof. May Be Ordered to Refer to Transgender Student Using the Student's Preferred Title and Pronoun ...

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  1. You can defer to ‘it’ in Russian, but generally that’s not going to work well either because of the tie to gender on so many other words.

    Having tried to translate english directly to russian, our lazy uses of ‘it’ to reference something earlier in a conversation doesn’t translate at all. Which made for some real fun in thinking about what I’m saying and how exactly to say it.

  2. It seems like that would be the least of the issues. English has only 3 cases of pronouns, the subjective, objective, and possessive (xe, xim, xir or whatever). IIRC Russian has 6 major ones. If you get a few folks with a few different pronouns, that paradigm could get pretty big pretty quickly.

    1. But based on my limited experience with Russians, I suspect that none of this is really a problem in Russia. But they do have other problems.

      1. I got 99 problems but gender ain’t one of them seems apt here.

        You are quite correct that there are plenty of issues in Russia, but this isn’t one for them. My experience with Russia and Russians is fairly in depth considering circumstances.

    2. The major problem for Russian is that quite often they don’t use pronouns, allowing the conjugation of the verb to provide context.

  3. Is there any reason to think Russians would even have this debate? How do you say “Americans are crazy” in Russian?

    1. Apparently they do.

      “Take the phrase “I was reading.” In Russia, a man would say “ya chital” while a woman would say “ya chitala.” So*ni, however, would say “ya chitakhshi.””

      1. But I question whether they ‘would’ have the debate. Certainly there is a population within Russia that is non-conforming to their sex, meaning they are gay, trans, or whichever other option they choose. However, it’s unlikely most Russians will even have a discussion about anyone who is not heterosexual, they are still in the stage of violently attacking these groups of people.

        Not all Russians are like that though, but it’s still accepted enough that attacking them in public may or may not get you arrested.

  4. In Japanese, pronouns are rarely used when referring to someone other than yourself. There are only specific social contexts where it is acceptable to use a pronoun for another person. You just use their name even if you talking directly to them, not あなた (anata) the word for “you” unless the person is either your spouse or girlfriend/boyfriend or you are referring to group of people.

    1. and Japanese verbs and adjectives don’t change by gender, like English.

      1. And thank goodness for that. As confusing as it was at first, I actually really came to like Japanese verb conjugation. I don’t know the best way to describe it, but their conjugations modify meaning while also incorporating other elements, such as tense and relationships between the audience and speaker.

      2. This is… not quite true.
        You mentioned anata, for example.
        In kana, it’s genderless: あなた
        In one kanji form, it’s genderless: 貴方
        In a different kanji form, it’s female: 貴女

        While there are many ways to refer to someone in Japanese without using their name or a gendered pronoun, there are other ways that do specify a sex.

  5. There’s no such thing as gender. Its a made up concept hijacked from linguistics. Theres biological sex and deranged politics. You can be male, female, or in a small amount of cases biologically intersexual. The reason we’ve seen this massive Orwellian shift to purposely less precise more deceptive language is that activists can demand the word gender to replace sex as a synonym and then when called on it rightfully point out that gender is all in the imagination. Its a worse than useless term. It purpose is to muddle things up.

    If you want to have a lark I recommend reading up on the guy who originally hijacked the term and all the wonderful things he got up to. Something you won’t learn about in Gender Theory 101.

    1. Not a fan of “made up” stuff, Amos?

      What’s your position on putting superstition on currency and courtroom facades, or in public meetings and oaths?

      What do you think about providing public funds to schools that teach superstitious nonsense at the expense of science and history?

      What do you think about special privilege at law for religious claims in general?

      1. Me, I think that people should believe whatever they believe, but that others, including the government as employer, shouldn’t require others to pay verbal homage to said beliefs.

        1. Codes of conduct for professors are not about paying verbal homage to anything, they’re about not being a dick if you can help it.

    2. Please provide a copy of the document that vested you with authority over the English language. TIA!

  6. You think these psychotic perverts would want to use the pronouns of the sex they want to impersonate.

  7. “taking a stand on a person’s gender”

    We now have to have “stands” on facts?

    There are males, there are females. [There is .001 percent with genetic abnormalities.] No “stand” necessary.

    1. The comment from this woman is absolutely right.

      1. What’s your stand on creationism, Bob? Especially creationism in schools?

        Carry on, clinger.

  8. That Russian gives gender even to first person verbs should be a benefit, because speakers effectively announce their preferred genders.

    1. Not always… For the same verb “think” (dumat’) there are gender variations for first and third person past, but not present and future tenses (dumal/dumala/dumalo, but dumayu and budu dumat’). In fact it works that way for most verbs in Russian.

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